Traveling with masked kids shows why US mask mandate is controversial - analysis

Everything related to the pandemic in the US has been politicized since early 2020.

 Air travellers wearing protective face masks, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, walk at JetBlue Terminal 5 at JFK International airport in New York, US, November 16, 2021. (photo credit: REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON)
Air travellers wearing protective face masks, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, walk at JetBlue Terminal 5 at JFK International airport in New York, US, November 16, 2021.
(photo credit: REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON)

I recently returned from a trip to the United States. This was the first time that my whole family, wife and kids, got to fly together to the US. The pandemic had thwarted earlier trips.

While some aspects of travel and the endlessly changing restrictions and test requirements have eased; one issue that had not eased for us was the requirement to wear masks for children over two years old. A federal judge struck down the US travel mandate for masks on April 18, and the rapidity with which airlines have sought to do away with the masks illustrates how controversial the mandate was as it continued into 2022.

Everything related to the pandemic in the US has been politicized from early 2020. Masks were always at the center of this. This includes the fact that in the first months of the crisis the US authorities often put out conflicting guidelines about the US of masks. 

In March officials told people to stop buying masks, but then later encouraged people to wear masks. Then mask mandates in some states were lifted in May 2021, but later, in July 2021, the Surgeon General said putting masks back on would help stem a new spread of Covid. 

The White House lifted a mask mandate before a State of the Union address in February 2022. States also lifted many school mask requirements in February. But some universities are now ordering masks back on students.

 US President Joe Biden removes his face mask as he delivers remarks to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Winter Meeting in Washington, US, March 10, 2022.  (credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST) US President Joe Biden removes his face mask as he delivers remarks to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Winter Meeting in Washington, US, March 10, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)

It appeared that the last bastion of masks would be on public transport in the US, where a federal mandate kept masks on travelers over the age of two years on planes, trains and buses. 

While supporters mask mandates have generally claimed that they are “following science,” it was never clear why science in the United States demanded masks for children over two years old, but in many other countries the mandates began at five or six years old. 

For instance, Amtrak, the rail service, said that “children under 2 years old are exempt from wearing a face covering. Amtrak reserves the right to remove a customer or ban them from future travel in the event of noncompliance with Amtrak's face covering policy.” 

When we flew to the US earlier this month our youngest child was faced with having to wear a mask for the first time. This was not going to be easy as we knew he would not respond well. Nevertheless we girded ourselves for the fact that if we wanted him to see his relatives for the first time, he would have to be subjected to the mask.

We’ve all seen videos of how chaotic air travel has become, how burdensome the security procedures became after 9/11; and now the staff at airports have been asking to be mask police as well. On our first flight to the US, there was a welcome surprise. 

Even though the announcement at boarding paid lip service to enforcing masks for kids and adults; the policy was not enforced much on the flight for kids. The pilot even suggested that soon the mask policy would hopefully end. 

On our second flight however, a stewardess did warn us that our three-year-old would need to put on a mask. Luckily they never came around again to check. It appeared they had done their “duty” by informing us and went about their business. 

This is because America has outsourced its health policy to people who are not usually forced to put masks on kids. People trained to be staff on an airline likely did not think their job would one day entail having to look to see if every nose on an airplane was perfectly covered. But the loudspeakers at airports like Newark continually warn travelers to wear their masks properly and when boarding aircraft the announcements began again and again. 

What’s odd about the masking obsession in the United States travel industry was that it seemed to loom larger than anything else. Gone were the endless announcements about bags being left “unattended” and “destroyed”, and now it was all about masks. But it was clear that pilots and flight attendants didn’t really want to have to enforce this.

On our return flight to Israel, a day before a judge ended the mask mandate, our family was stopped short of boarding by the demands that we mask our young child. While he tore off two masks and scream and cried, we finally forced him to wear one. 

For me, that was a symbol of the brutal system that part of America has become, a system obsessed with forcing parents to restrain their three-year-old children, children who can “barely express themselves, into wearing a mask. 

There was no sense to this policy. There is no scientific study that says a three-year-old but not a two year old should wear a mask; or that a four-year-old but not a three-year-old. No one studied aircraft and put control groups of three and four and five year olds and saw whether masking some but not others had an effect.

As much as we are told that one shouldn’t comment on this if one is “not a doctor,” it doesn’t take a doctor to realize the arbitrary line that the US drew across the barrier between two and three years of age; which other countries often drew at a much older age. “The Government of Canada requires that all travellers six years and older wear a face mask large enough to cover their mouth, nose and chin during their entire travel journey.”

There’s no science backing up the US demand over the last year and a half to mask three-year-olds; while right across the border a different policy, rooted in the same science, says they will begin at six.  

American media likes to talk about “facts” and “misinformation.” It’s a fact that in Scotland “by law, everyone age 12 and over must wear a face covering in most indoor public places in Scotland. Places you need to wear a face covering include: shops. bars, restaurants, cafes and nightclubs.” Twelve years and older. But in the US they wanted two years and older on public transport.

Let’s look at Dubai: “You must wear a cloth or medical mask throughout Dubai International airport, during boarding, throughout your flight, and as you leave the aircraft. Children under 6 years old and customers who have certain medical conditions do not have to wear a mask.”  

So most of the world, relying on the same science at Washington, came up with an age cut-off for masking and that age was 6 years old. The US decided to begin at three years old. There was no sense, no logic, no science, nothing behind this policy, except cruelty and brutality directed at children.

The US policy in my view was child abuse. Forcing young children who can’t express themselves to wear a mask for a long flight, and seeing their crying and struggles, is abusive. It is also abusive when adults can make the decision when to un-mask to eat and drink.

This is because airlines and US policy allowed people to remove masks temporarily to drink and eat. So an adult can decide to drink some wine and enjoy the flight, nibbling away at some snacks; while ostensibly airlines were told they had to police the three-year-olds who can’t express themselves as easily, or order endless drinks.  

There was something wrong with this policy and many people knew it. That is why pilots and staff seem to have opposed it. It was arbitrary, since no one could ever explain why it was safe to have an entire airline all unmasked eating a meal for half an hour, and then masked for two hours of a flight; how that half an hour of eating without masks somehow didn’t lead to transmission of Covid. None of it made sense.

This was an example of the government grasping as policies like a carpenter grasps for a hammer; and every problem becomes a nail. The government couldn’t’ craft a flexible policy, so it went for “mitigation” strategies based on big data.

Masking people on planes, but not in restaurants, on buses but not at concerts, was merely about “slowing” the spread of Covid. And overall the same government policy that designed this in the US also had told Americans in the summer of 2021 that the pandemic was largely now a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

It had bizarrely told people to wear two masks in January 2021, and the US CDC had told fully vaccinated people they could largely go without masks in July 2021. 

The whole thing was chaos, and years into the pandemic it has never been fully explained why such chaos was the norm. Public policy about “health” during the pandemic has been so chaotic because it can’t keep up with rising cases and declining cases; new variants and changing understanding of “breakthroughs” and “waning immunity” among vaccinated populations.

We’ve suffered through this in Israel as well, where masks remain on public transit. But in Israel many things are a bit more flexible in terms of enforcement these days.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t long ago that kids had to take endless tests just to use public pools, or to go to school, and they were constantly being sent home for quarantine if some children tested positive.

If we made a list of the changing guidelines it would look like total chaos; and it has caused many families trauma. It remains to be seen whether the changing mandates in the US and elsewhere will remain; or whether the much tougher policies in China, where Shanghai is still locked down; may one day come again to our areas.